Literature review week 4: Towards understanding governance for sustainable urban water management

Towards understanding governance for sustainable urban water management

Paper by S.J. van de Meene,*, R.R. Brown , M.A. Farrelly

Reviewed by Pinal Desai

This literature aims at the governmental level policies that should be incorporated to make urban water management more sustainable. The research focuses the current systems and trends and proposed theories in the Australian urban sectors. The analysis and conclusions presented in this paper depend on the data received from interviews conducted in Sydney and Melbourne. The authors use various scholarly approaches for the underlying thought for the interview questions. The paper extends current scholarship by revealing attributes of a hybrid governance approach for SUWM, challenging the traditional separation of ideal hierarchical, market and network governance approaches- the three ideal governance approaches that are often identified.

Hierarchical governance consists of formal arrangements and representative democratic accountability mechanisms (Kjær, 2004). This approach characterised early urban water management and was observed in large, centralised public authorities for wastewater, water supply and drainage services (Vlachos and Braga, 2001), with vertical accountability and little stakeholder participation

Market governance aims to allocate resources efficiently and empower citizens (Pierre and Peters, 2000). This approach became popular during the 1990s and was observed in urban water management through full cost pricing, introduction of competition and privatisation (Bakker, 2002).

Network governance is founded on reciprocity and consensus(Kjær, 2004), and acknowledges public, private and civil actor participation is required for effective public policy development and implementation (Klijn and Koppenjan, 2000). Networks can exhibit self-governing tendencies, which can be resistant to external influences, such as government steering, and pose challenges for accountability (Kjær, 2004). Although an empirical example of a network governance approach has not been formally identified in urban water management, scholars implicitly advocate this approach for SUWM (see Brown et al., 2009; Pahl-Wostl, 2007, 2008).

Research approach

Practitioners based in the cases of Sydney and Melbourne were selected because they face significant challenges to enable SUWM which are similar to other large urban areas, such as population growth, environmental impacts from traditional urban water approaches and uncertainty due to climate change.

Data collection, when concluded, was coded and analyzed iteratively until all categories were saturated, suggesting additional data collection would not provide significantly greater insight (Strauss and Corbin, 1998); the two coded datasets were then combined because of numerous similarities between the cities’ data Interview participants were identified through both formal and informal approaches and nominated through at least two independent sources

The SUWM governance features are now discussed using the four regime elements of the analytical framework (Table 2): actors, processes, structures and influences. Under each of the four elements, the regime features and characteristics are described and discussed using literature and then summarized in tables (3-6) some important results of each of these four aspects are mentioned below:

  1. Actors:

Defined under: Problem frame, purpose, knowledge and skills. The actors would likely have diverse knowledge and skills and a positive approach to relationships, both within and between organizations. This perspective highlights the need for actors to understand and appreciate the interconnected physical and socio-institutional elements of a SUWM system.

  1. Process

Defined under 4 keywords: Accountability & transparency * Continual Improvement * Risk management * Leadership * Cooperation & collaboration

The characteristics of the continual improvement and risk management regime features discussed by interviewees reflect some significant differences compared to the traditional urban water management regime, which relies on standard solutions to different locations

  1. Structures:

Four features were identified from the interviews as critical for effective SUWM: an industry-wide culture which emphasizes flexibility and integration of water with the biophysical context and other related sectors (e.g. land use planning); water infrastructure which is integrated across the water cycle and supports ecosystem health; use of a variety of policy instruments; and administrative arrangements which are clear and foster stakeholder interaction.

  1. Influences:

Defined under: authority and resources

Participants identified the authority of individuals (e.g. politicians) and organizations (e.g. regulators, government departments) as important because the distribution of authority affects each actor’s ability to take control or have control exerted over them. Interviewees including, on the one hand centralization of power with government, and on the other decentralization enabling actors greater scope to influence SUWM expressed a range of perspectives.



The research revealed that a hybrid governance approach for SUWM is more realistic and more likely to deliver sustainable environmental outcomes.

The hybrid governance approach for SUWM, with the limited emphasis on market governance, contrasts with scholarly support for market governance approaches for managing natural resources

However, the paper also defines some short comings of this approach. One being it does not consider different locations, as the research was defined on data from Sydney and Melbourne participants.


This research suggests:

  1. Decentralization of infrastructure as against the traditional centralised system of water management but strong leadership that allows smooth implementation of policies.
  2. Governance scholarship has under utilized tacit knowledge understood how different operational governance contexts influence the effective realization of SUWM in practice.
  3. Interaction among governance approaches at different spatial and temporal scales could be a challenge



Kjær, A.M., 2004. Governance. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.

Vlachos, E., Braga, B., 2001. The challenge of urban water management. In: Maksimovic, C., Tejada-Guibert, J.A. (Eds.), Frontiers in Urban Water Management: Deadlock or Hope. IWA Publishing, London, UK, pp. 1–36.

Pierre, J., Peters, B.G., 2000. Governance, Politics and the State. Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK.

Bakker, K., 2002. From state to market?: water mercantilizacion in Spain. Environment and Planning A 34, 767–790.

Klijn, E.-H., Koppenjan, J.F.M., 2000. Public management and policy networks: foundations of a network approach to governance. Public Management 2, 135–158. 

Brown, R.R., Keath, N., Wong, T.H.F., 2009. Urban water management in cities: historical, current and future regimes. Water Science and Technology 59, 847–855.

 Pahl-Wostl, C., 2007. Transitions towards adaptive management of water facing climate and global change. Water Resources Management 21, 49–62.

 Pahl-Wostl, C., 2008. Requirements of adaptive water management. In: Pahl-Wostl, C., Kabat, P., Mo¨ ltgen, J. (Eds.), Adaptive and Integrated Water Management: Coping with Complexity and Uncertainty. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Germany, pp.1–22.

 Strauss, A.L., Corbin, J.M., 1998. Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, 2nd ed. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, USA









Pinal Desai

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